Reshaping S. Africa in clay

Ceramics: Women potters produce works that blend Africa and the West and symbolize the nation's racial progress.

January 22, 1999|By Gilbert Lewthwaite | Gilbert Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WINTERTON, South Africa -- In the hands of Bonnie Ntshalintshali the clay takes on a strikingly African beauty, to be painted in vibrant African colors.

It might be a complicated ceramic collage of a traditional Zulu wedding, a sculpture of Daniel in the lion's den, a decorated teapot, or a brightly plumed bird, all done with childlike simplicity but with an artistic touch.

These are the trademarks of Ardmore Ceramic Studio, where Zulu potters and painters such as Ntshalintshali are attracting national and international attention with an eclectic collection of free-form art.

Their work can be inspired as easily by the Bible as the jungle, by ancient myth or modernity. It speaks to both the old and the new South Africa, to African traditions and Western influences.

It also testifies to the ability of the races to work together in a country where they were recently officially segregated.

The artists who work here are from the Champagne Valley, where, ironically, there is no tradition of using clay although Zulu women elsewhere are renowned potters.

Mostly single mothers and uneducated, they faced the prospect of being unemployed or doing menial jobs. Their lives changed when a white graduate in fine arts from Zimbabwe arrived here after being laid off from a college lecturing job in nearby Durban.

Fee Halsted came to this remote but beautiful corner of KwaZulu/Natal province to join her fiance, James Berning, now her husband, on his farm, known as Ardmore, in the shadow of the Drakensberg mountains.

Anxious to maintain her art work and missing teaching, Halsted-Berning began introducing her maid's daughter, Bonnie, a victim of polio at the age of 6, to the magic of clay in 1985.

Politically, it was the height of the apartheid era, but culturally the art world here was in ferment, testing the cross-fertilization of African and Western ideas and identities years ahead of political racial reconciliation.

The young Zulu woman's talent and creativity quickly emerged, and within six months her work was on display in an art gallery in Durban, and she and Halsted-Berning won their first major national award.

On her way home from one arts festival in 1990, Halsted-Berning's mother said to her: "You should actually turn this into something to help the people earn some money, to create jobs for them."

So the studio opened, deep in the heart of a right-wing Afrikans farming community, where the blacks worked in the fields or in the farmstead.

"For the first time they started working with someone who didn't look down on them," she said. "I am not about any of that. I am just about people and encouragement, and I said, `That's wonderful.' It's creativity breeding creativity."

Now, 40 potters and painters work in the old stone-walled stables, coiling or throwing pots, sculpting figurines and animals, gluing and painting, creating pieces of fantasy and function.

Ntshalintshali, 33, is the lead artist. Her works grace every major public art collection in this country and many private collections. They have been shown overseas, including in the United States.

Ntshalintshali is paid, like all the artists, on commission. Her pieces are snapped up by collectors as soon as they are finished. They range in price from $25 to several thousand dollars. Like many of the other women, she is a single mother.

Born on Ardmore, the daughter of a farm worker, her earnings have enabled her to give her family all the comforts of modern life in an area where enduring hardship is the tradition. She does not want to get married, fearing that any man would be more interested in her money than her.

"I am feeling so very happy," she says shyly in halting English. "I started with nothing. There was no work. Sometimes we would pick mealies [corn]. That's all there was. But now it's getting better all the time."

Because the kiln at Ardmore was small, Halsted-Berning and Ntshalintshali worked on pieces that could be baked separately and then glued together, establishing one of the styles of Ardmore -- the ceramic collage.

Her works include a stage-like setting of the Last Supper with two bottles of the local Castle beer humorously laid on the dining table and a group assembly of the wedding showing a Zulu bride in Western-style white dress and the groom in black tie.

In a contrasting work, she produced Traditional Zulu Wedding, a colorful depiction of a bare-breasted bride and bare-chested groom surrounded by the wedding party in tribal dress.

In 1996, Halsted-Berning left the farm at Ardmore with her husband to take over his parents' dairy farm at Springvale, an hour's drive away. "I decided it was time that they learned to be more self-sufficient," she says.

She took three of the artists with her to start a sister studio. But she returns regularly to Ardmore, now managed by Mbuse Moses Nqubuka, a former gasoline station attendant. He oversees production, values the pieces, and keeps the books.

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